"A living hell for children" - UNICEF Regional Director Geert Cappelaere remarks on the situation of children in Yemen

04 November 2018
On 14 March 2018 in Aden City, Yemen, a child is displaced from Taiz because of the conflict.

This is a summary of what was said by Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa – to whom quoted text may be attributed – at today's press conference in Amman, following his visit to Yemen. 

AMMAN, 4 November 2018 - “I want this moment with you, distinguished colleagues, partners in the media, to be in memory of Amal. Amal’s emaciated body was last week on the cover of the New York Times and shocked the world. But now sadly, she passed away on the 1st of November as you all know. Unfortunately, Amal is not the only Yemeni child suffering that fate.

Colleagues, friends – 30,000 children in Yemen die every single year of malnutrition as one of the most important underlying causes. There is not one Amal – there are many thousands of “Amals”. Juliette [UNICEF Regional Chief of Communications] and I had the privilege of meeting many of them as we traveled through Yemen.

We met with Adam, Abdulqudus, Sara, Randa and others. Each time I name them, I see the images clearly of them lying in their beds. Some of them supported by their families. Some of them just lying on their own, with hardly anybody to support them.

Yemen, colleagues, is today a living hell for children. A living hell not for 50-60 per cent of children. It is a living hell for every single boy and girl in Yemen.

I know that figures don’t say much but they are important – just as a reminder for all of us to realize how dire the situation has become.

There are in Yemen during any given year, 1.8 million children suffering from acute malnutrition. 400,000 children on any given day suffering from a life-threatening form of severe acute malnutrition. Forty per cent of these 400,000 are living in Hodeida and in neighbouring governorates where the war is raging.

We were lucky on Thursday – we were really lucky. We were lucky to be able to attend to some of these children in al-Thawra hospital – the only remaining referral hospital in Hodeida. The al-Thawra hospital is one, maximum two kilometers from the frontline.

Before taking the road back to Sana’a, I hoped to go back to the hospital. But unfortunately by Friday, the hospital had become off-limits. Thursday night, we hardly managed to catch any sleep because of the heavy fighting around us throughout the night. As I lay awake, I thought of the children I had seen a few hours before.

Sara, for example, a child half paralyzed by diphtheria – an illness that is entirely preventable by vaccine if children get it in time. Sara – unfortunately - wasn’t vaccinated and she got diphtheria. Half of her body is paralyzed.

I thought of Sara. Not only was she on her own, not only was she half paralyzed – as if that wasn’t enough. As she was healing, she was hearing the shelling going on. Just imagine what this little girl was thinking.

Half of Yemeni children (under the age of 5) – half – are chronically malnourished. This is a vicious cycle. 1.1 million pregnant or lactating women are anemic. When giving birth, these women know that their children will be of low birth weight, starting that cycle of malnutrition and leading to chronic malnutrition and all the health consequences for these boys and girls. As we all know, chronic malnutrition has an incredibly important impact on a child’s brain development.

So the 50 per cent of Yemeni children under the age of 5 who are today chronically malnourished are all children who will never develop to their full intellectual potential. That is bad for the children and bad for Yemen, if we ever want Yemen to be a country where it is good to live as a child.

Vaccination levels have gone down dramatically since the beginning of the war. Let me also be very clear with all of you: even before the war, the vaccination levels were already not that good. They have gone down further. There is no country-wide immunity, so we see outbreaks of measles and diphtheria - with a fatal impact on children.

It is therefore not a surprise that we once again tell you that in Yemen today, every 10 minutes, a child is dying from diseases that can be easily prevented.

Unfortunately, the situation being bad, being incredibly dire, is just further deteriorating. We mentioned the war, but there is also the economic crisis with less and less essential commodities affordable for the majority of Yemenis.

I had the opportunity to talk to many families who are benefitting today from a very small amount of money that UNICEF is providing through the Emergency Cash Transfer Programme. They are the 1.5 million most vulnerable and poorest families in Yemen. The families receive a very small amount of money monthly from UNICEF. These families were telling us that essential commodities aren’t anymore for them – buying fruits and vegetables. Not because fresh fruits and vegetables are not available on the market but because they are unaffordable. We travelled on the road from Sana’a to Hodeida – everywhere fruits and vegetables are there but aren’t affordable.

Meat and fish for the most vulnerable families are no longer an option. So you can easily understand why we have such high malnutrition.

Even drinking water – which every child requires, if not children end up with acute and chronic diarrhoea – (water) isn’t affordable for many families.

Yemen is a water-scarce country. Water needs to be pumped from boreholes in many parts of the country. Many boreholes are up to 1.5 kilometres deep. So we need big water pumps. The pumps need fuel and fuel is becoming very expensive, hence water becomes very expensive. And for a growing group of families, it is no longer an option.

The war continues. There are some positive signs, and I will come back on that, but the war hits hard.

I mentioned Hodeida and the al-Thawra hospital and the impact that the fighting is having on the people of Hodeida, however the impact goes beyond Hodeida.

I visited Hodedia port. The port is a lifeline for 70-80 per cent of the Yemeni population. It is only through Hodeida port that commercial and humanitarian supplies arrive enabling us to deliver assistance in the northern part of the country.

With any assault on Hodedia, we not only fear for the lives of the thousands of children in Hodedia, we also fear for the impact on children and population, particularly those living in the northern part of the country.

Should all of this shock us? I hope it does.

And I truly hope that that the world doesn’t need more cover pages of children like Amal.

Should the situation surprise us?

Absolutely not.

All the suffering today of the millions of children in Yemen is man-made. If today we are looking at the risk of a potential famine in Yemen, there is no single natural cause for that. It is simply because of reasons for which adults are responsible but for which children will pay the highest price.

Do we come back from Yemen despaired?

Absolutely not.

The families we talked to – and there are many – don’t allow us to despair. The teachers we spoke to, many of them not having received their salaries for several months. The doctors and nurses in al -Thawra hospital, and the other health centres we visited - again without a salary - doing their best, day in day out, still doing their best with limited supplies and means to attend to the children.

The families, the mothers, the fathers we spoke to still trying to do their best for their children, they don’t allow us to despair.

I am happy that with the generous support from donors, we also as UNICEF have reason not to despair.

We all remember that last year, Yemen was hit with an unprecedented cholera outbreak. Today, thanks to efforts of UNICEF and partners, we have been able to reduce the number of cholera and acute watery diarrhea cases to 10 per cent of what they were last year.

So there is hope that with the right investment, we can change the situation. But still,10 per cent of the former caseload works out to 100,000. That’s 100,000 too many.

Our investments as UNICEF, with partners, are paying off. We have been able to stabilize the levels of acute malnutrition across the country. Considering the environment, the economic crisis in the country, this is an incredible achievement. It shows again that with the right investment and time, we can change the situation.

But again, it is not enough. (In Yemen) 400,000 children under the age of 5 are suffering today from severe acute malnutrition. 30,000 children under the age of 5 are dying every single year from diseases that have malnutrition as their cause.

In the absence of any solution to the economic crisis, or in the absence of a peace deal, our humanitarian action needs to continue. Where possible, we need to scale up. Where possible, we need to further improve the quality of that assistance because it is paying off.

Our ask here is for parties to the conflict to ensure that humanitarian assistance and protection of the people can continue unconditionally, and that the many obstacles that our teams face on a day-to-day basis – imposed by authorities from both sides - must be removed immediately.

Our ask to the international community is to continue to be generous for the Yemeni people, for the Yemeni children.

Yemeni children are trapped in Yemen. There is no way out for Yemeni people. There are very few Yemeni people who have left the country and are living as refugees. They are trapped. So we need to continue being incredibly generous for the Yemeni people and the Yemeni children.

UNICEF will continue doing its share as part of these efforts. UNICEF will step up its cash assistance and step up efforts to prevent and cure acute malnutrition.

UNICEF will start paying incentives to allow teachers to have a little bit of compensation for their continued work in the absence of a salary. We are exploring the same for health workers in the absence of their salary. We are also exploring that for workers who are active in sectors like water and sanitation for them to continue their critical work with a little bit of an incentive as they await their salaries.

But what UNICEF cannot do is to stop the war.

And we will not stop. On behalf of all the Yemeni children. We call on all the parties to the conflict to come together under the leadership of the Special Envoy, Martin Griffiths, to come together and agree on a ceasefire and a road to peace in Yemen.

We call on all the parties when they meet in Sweden later this month, when they sit around the table, just to think of Amal, and think of Amal as their own daughter. Put children at the centre of their discussions and not any political, military, economic or financial interests that don’t serve a single child.

However, while an end to the war is incredibly needed, we should also not fool ourselves, because an end to the war is not enough to stop the suffering of children. It will require a governance of Yemen in which the interest of the Yemeni people will be at the centre. Yemeni people have unfortunately not had the privilege over the past decades to be governed with their interest at the centre. So, an end to the war and a governance that puts Amal and the 15 million of children like Amal at the centre, that is for us, the only way out.

Shukran.”

Media Contacts

Juliette Touma

UNICEF Amman

Tel: +962 79 867 4628

Tamara Kummer

UNICEF MENA Regional Office

Tel: +962 797 588 550

Joe English

UNICEF New York

Tel: +1 917 893 0692

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